Wit: Who We Might Yet Become
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., May 25, 2001
Wit: Who We Might Yet Become
through June 10
Running Time: 1hr, 50 min
A chill in the air, a deathly chill, hangs in the auditorium of the State Theater, and a silence. The box of the stage contains a smaller box, a cube really, constructed of other stacked, colorless cubes, the perspective forced, allowing the impression of much more space, perhaps infinite, than might otherwise be distinguished. The cube is not empty, though. At the rear, parallel with the proscenium, is a wall constructed of still more cubes, all dimly, coldly lit, set off against this infinite cube. And not a sound can be heard except the murmur of the audience. The overall impression is disturbingly peaceful, and so noisily silent, as if pausing. You know that soon something will fill this empty space, something more than an entertainment. This stage is not set for entertainment only.
What the stage is set for is the State Theater Company's production of Wit, Margaret Edson's first play and one for which she won a Pulitzer Prize. Her story revolves around Dr. Vivian Bearing, a scholar of the religious poetry of John Donne. For decades, through Donne's poems, Bearing has taught classes of students about their relationship to the spiritual and eternal. But she is not loved well. She is knowledgeable, yes. Intelligent, without question. Respected, certainly. Feared -- oh yes. But not loved. A life without love -- well, can that be said to be a life at all?
It's heavy material, but director Michael Bloom's touch is light. Eventually the space, created by set designer Michael Raiford and lit coldly, yes, but occasionally warmly by lighting designer David Nancarrow, is filled with the noises of a hospital and the objects of the medical profession. The wheelchair. The examination table. One of those beds that looks so comfortable and yet so daunting, the extra equipment attached thereto telling a story that has nothing to do with a good night's sleep. As a group, they ensure that everything moves with well-oiled, institutional efficiency, quickly and easily rolling on and off the stage and through the surprising, well-hidden double doors on either side of the cube. With the skilled and experienced hands of a surgeon, Bloom guides us through Dr. Bearing's education in the truth of life, the action gliding easily from side to side to center and back again. He creates a series of primarily still pictures that move suddenly with the frenetic activity of a modern hospital then become still again for long spells. Quiet spells. So quiet. So lonely.
In the middle of it all, sometimes standing -- and just barely -- mostly lying down, is Megan Cole's Dr. Vivian Bearing. When we first see her, she wears the hallowed cap of her beloved Boston Red Sox (talk about death in life) and a hospital gown, and pulls one of those thin stands that holds the bags of fluid that keep her hydrated. She welcomes us to her world, but she doesn't quite let us in -- not yet. At the beginning, she holds us at arm's length, her intelligence obvious in her poise and her cultivated voice. She introduces us to those who treat her: Michael Costello's warm Dr. Kelekian, who informs her of her disease in technical language that belies his perfectly practiced bedside manner; Guy Roberts' young Jason, a doctoral fellow detached from his patients to the point of seeming careless and who, during a pelvic examination, provides one of the most chilling moments I've experienced in a theatre; and nurse Susie, played by Shannon Grounds, the only non-Equity actor among the four, who gives a simple and almost note-perfect performance of warmth, grace, and love. Each of these performances is striking, but none more so than Cole's. She never leaves the stage as we watch her change -- no, transform, stripping away layer after layer of well-constructed defenses until she stands naked before us, her humanity revealed. She makes us face our own mortality. She makes two hours feel like one.
I've heard a question asked often lately, not about Wit, although it certainly applies: Why do this? Do we really need this? A legitimate question, particularly as it applies to this play, which could be seen as just another story about someone dying of a dreadful disease. My response: Why do any play -- at all? Because it speaks to the people involved, no matter the subject. Because it helps us learn about ourselves. Because it illuminates the human spirit. And, like Wit particularly, because it makes us feel hopeful about who we are and might yet become.